As Tibetans step up protests against Chinese rule, Buddhist monasteries in the eastern regions of Tibet have become the focus of efforts to promote not just religion but Tibetan national and cultural values, according to Tibetan sources.
And annual public assemblies at the monasteries have greatly increased in size in recent years, observers and participants say, as tens of thousands of Tibetans gather to assert their cultural identity in the face of Beijing’s cultural and political domination.
Religious congregations in Tibet have traditionally concerned themselves with the performance of rituals and prayers, said one man, who travels widely in the region.
“Now, it’s different,” he said.
“Taking these gatherings as an opportunity, many educated Tibetan individuals and intellectuals attend the sessions and take part in discussions about Tibetan culture and traditions,” said the man, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
Use of the spoken and written Tibetan language, and “how important this is to the survival of Tibetans,” is especially stressed, he said, adding that moral ethics and nonviolence have also become popular subjects of instruction.
At Sershul monastery in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Sichuan province, more than 20,000 Tibetan monks and laypeople gathered from Oct. 6-13 to take part in discussions on these subjects, one participant said.
And during an Oct. 2-5 gathering at the Dzogchen monastery, also in Kardze, a senior religious leader spoke to more than 10,000 Tibetans about moral conduct in the community.
“As a result, many young Tibetans surrendered their weapons, including swords and knives, and vowed to shun violence,” one source said.
“Many also took vows to give up drinking and gambling, to speak pure Tibetan [not mixed with Chinese], and to wear Tibetan national dress.”
Similar gatherings were held in at least eight other locations during September and October, sources said, with one assembly of about 1,400 monks currently under way in Nangchen in the Yulshul (in Chinese, Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Qinghai province.
The growing movement among Tibetans to declare their cultural identity in the face of cultural and political domination by China has allowed Tibetans to “differentiate themselves from what it means to be ‘Chinese,’” said Elliott Sperling, a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University.
“The very act of defining your Tibetanness is an act of defining that which is not ‘Chinese’ about you,” Sperling said.
Following widespread protests in Tibet in 2008 against rule by Beijing, China’s leaders may have attempted to strike “a deal” with Tibetans similar to the one they struck with the Chinese people following the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Sperling said.
In this deal, Sperling said, certain restrictions on expression would be relaxed so long as no fundamental challenge was mounted to the Chinese Communist Party’s political control.
“But essentially, [this deal] isn’t going to work, since the dynamic is quite different,” Sperling said. “In other words, they’re dealing with a population which simply does not see itself as Chinese.”
“And you have many different expressions of this, which include celebrations of Tibetanness.”
Tibet under Chinese rule has been rated among 10 of the world's most repressive societies in a survey published this year by U.S.-based rights group Freedom House.
A recent wave of self-immolation protests against Chinese rule in which at least five Tibetans have died underscores the desperate situation faced by Tibetans, some analysts said.
The protests “could lead to a turning point in relations between the Chinese state and the Tibetan community,” Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University, said last week.
“I have seen things on the Web inside Tibet—poems and comments and so on—that show that many Tibetans are deeply upset about these developments,” Barnett said.
“I think that Tibetans take it very seriously when they see people prepared to give up their lives because of what is understood to be political pressure on them.”
But Beijing is unlikely to relax its controls in Tibet.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping—the likely successor to President Hu Jintao, who must retire from running the Party in late 2012 and from the presidency in early 2013—visited Tibet in July to preside over celebrations marking 60 years since China gained control over the region.
Xi, in his first major speech on Tibet, vowed to crack down on "separatist activity" in the region and suggested that he will not ease Beijing's hard-line stance.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.